I wanted to write about Barbara Ehrenreich's article
on honesty and abortion that came rather unwittingly on the tail end of a blogosphere debate about honesty and abortion. I was beside myself when I read it--she's so articulate, and what she said dovetailed so well into what I said about it. Summary: I found the hand-wringing over how Amy Richards didn't fall on the ground weeping and wailing over her selective reduction to be incredibly sexist. The implication, as Trish Wilson
pointed out perfectly, was that there was some sort of litmus test for acceptable and unacceptable abortions, and while everyone has a different line in the sand for those that count and those that are bad, I could tell that the prevailing standard is whether a woman can maintain the proper feminine stance while getting one.
My immediate and repeated point was that if a prevailing social standard developed over the proper feminine reaction towards an abortion, that women would immediately adopt that stance to deflect criticism and make people comfortable. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--we have lots of social customs for unfortunate circumstances for just that reason, the funeral being the most obvious. But if you want honestly, well, you have to learn to deal with it. Ehrenreich has caught onto a social custom that has developed in the meantime, but one that encourages things like the animosity towards Amy Richards. The social custom was the division between the acceptable/unacceptable abortion, the acceptable one being an abortion performed in the proper selfless feminine stance--that of a woman who aborts her disabled child in order to spare the child, its father, and all of society the burden of living with the disability:
The prejudice is widespread that a termination for medical reasons is somehow on a higher moral plane than a run-of-the-mill abortion. In a 1999 survey of Floridians, for example, 82 percent supported legal abortion in the case of birth defects, compared with about 40 percent in situations where the woman simply could not afford to raise another child.
I read this with trepidation.
I saw her point immediately and agreed with it--she was wisely abstaining from offering an opinion on the "rightness" of aborting a disabled fetus, since that was a separate issue from her main point, which was that distinctions between abortions are inherently false. Even the supposedly "selfless" ones have a selfish component--you want to live, you don't want to care for a disabled child, it's not time, you want your career. The degree is different, but the result is the same--an abortion is always about the pregnant woman. It's such a controversial position, I squirm as I point it out, but it's the truth.
The splitting hairs began after that, which is fine, since morality is all about splitting hairs. And, that's the best argument in the whole world for freedom, that some moral questions have no definite answers.
But my trepidation came from this--the prevailing moral standard that I was detecting was that of the Morality of the Selfless Female. We accept that women should have a moral right to abort a disabled fetus, but the myth of the Selfless Female is powerful enough that I could see a rapidly forming mass movement emphasizing that a Good Woman would be honored to raise a disabled child, women being so selfless and all. Unless they aren't right in the head? That a woman doesn't wish to nurture a child, much less turn her entire being to the task, is generally regarded as a mental illness.
This is an incredibly powerful myth, in part because it's hard to argue against, since selflessness is such a widely admired trait. The best that you usually hear is that selflessness in not valued in men so it shouldn't be a prerequiste for women. This argument is great--most of the time, it's more than enough. But some people are powerfully wed to their belief in the Selfless Female--they are wowed by semi-scientific arguments that women are naturally more nuturing or something--and you'll never get through to them.
But there is an argument that actually makes sense once you moderate it a bit.
My dad is conservative, but like most middle American conservatives, he's nowhere near as conservative as he thinks. Anyway, he will impart some good advice on me once in awhile, and I refuse to discount it for political reasons. One of the better pieces of advice was, "Once you own a house, you'll always own a house." I passed that on just the other day.
But the bit of Dad advice I will pass on tonight seems to fit a conservative agenda, but upon reflection is probably a great guideline for liberal activists and writers. My dad sez, "The best way to help other people is to take care of yourself first."
Alright, I can hear the objections already, but like I said, it's in how you interpet it. How I interpet it, and actually how he did (how the Republican party exploits good, solid folk wisdom like that and uses it to support a corporate agenda is a whole 'nother post) is fairly simple. We are all in this together. When one falls, we all help to pick a person up. If you care about other people, you do your best to fall less so that you are available to pick up more. Actually, one of the reasons that I've settled into the Democratic party is I see that message articulated and acted on. (How my father can be a union member, a man who actually goes to bat for women more than any I've known and still decry feminism, and an all-around decent guy and vote for the Republicans is a whole 'nother post altogether. I keep meaning to write it--if you're interested, let me know.)
So where does abortion and Selfless Womanhood fall into this? Well, gosh, let me tell you!
To me, that Richards had selective reduction was not only not a sign of selfishness, it was a sign of a certain kind of selflessness. All the praise we heap on the woman who lives in the state of Symbolic Selflessness confuses people. Selflessness becomes a stance, and has little relation to the practical stance of being in a position to help others. The perfect example of how to define "selfless" comes to the septuplets born a few years ago to much acclaim, the McCaughey septulets
. There was a lot of fuss made over their selfless decision to have all seven--but I have my questions.
The media characterized the decision to have all seven as the height of maternal selflessness. But McCaughey wasn't the first to bear seven, just the first to have all of them live. Even then, the ones born suffered health problems. She herself suffered a lot during her pregnancy, which these happy stories like to downplay. Her maternal sacrifice set a gold standard of selflessness. But how selfless is it, really? She had all sorts of medical treatment and generosity and she abandoned what family she had for months to have the babies. I'm sure her life is hard, and so by that standard, sure she's selfless. But, if she had taken care of herself to begin with, she would have not been a burden on the hospital, her family or the public.
Scarier still, if she had merely six, she wouldn't have been famous and wouldn't have received all the generous help and probably would have had to get welfare--conservative values, anyone?
So, why did she do it? Well, if you look at it one way, she had extremely selfish motivations. She knew that by doing this, odds were she was condemning at least a couple babies to painful death, and the rest to health problems and suffering. She lucked out that it didn't happen, but that doesn't change what she knew going in. Going in, she knew if she could pull it off, she would be a big Christian hero, widely admired. Self-righteous smugness is a selfish emotion.
By my measure, controlling your reproductive potential, mostly by contraceptive but sometimes if need be by abortion, you are being selfless. You are taking charge of your own life forcefully. You are offering the children you do have the best possible world.
Many women, contrary to popular stereotype, abort after having children. A woman I know wished to do it the second time she got pregnant--she cared for one well enough, but two would be back-cracking. She was afraid that a second would ruin the life of the one she already had. Is she selfish?
Long post--short point. Selfless itself is impossible to define. To me, it's an act of selflessness to destroy two, even though it's hard, to give one a good chance in life. To others, it's unspeakably cruel. We can't even decide when an abortion is too "selfish" to be legal or moral. On top of that, what "selfish" means is indefinable. That is why it must be a woman's unquestionable right.
Respectful of Otters
points out that it may or may not be worse to abort a disabled fetus than a normal one.